Monday, August 9, 2010


When Chris McCaughan talks about the album he’s about to release, he speaks in the excited, anxious cadence of someone who’s presenting his art to the world for the first time.

This is odd considering that his band The Lawrence Arms recently celebrated their tenth year together. “The Lawrence Arms have really been my defining experience in music,” McCaughan admits. “I’m thirty-three now and I’ve been in The Lawrence Arms for over ten years—that’s a third of my life. Playing those songs with those guys over the years really has been one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in regards to music.”

The record that McCaughan is excited to reveal, though, doesn’t involve the energetic, emotional pop-punk of The Lawrence Arms. Instead, he will release We Chase the Waves as Sundowner, his sort-of-solo acoustic side project. And, though it’s Sundowner’s second release, it stands apart from everything he has recorded in the past, which is likely the source of his ebullient butterflies.

The story of We Chase the Waves begins overseas when McCaughan took an offer to tour Europe by train with Mike Park, owner of Asian Man Records, in support of Four One Five Two, his debut as Sundowner. Since Park put out The Lawrence Arms’ first four releases, he has established himself as a respected solo musician and maintained a friendship with McCaughan for more than ten years.

“It was a really unique experience for me,” McCaughan remembers. “I had done a lot of touring, but it had always been in-the-van, band-style touring, so this was really different. We walked to clubs from the train.”

McCaughan had just concluded a more traditional tour with The Lawrence Arms, so hopping trains in England and playing solo on these strange stages made him feel like a man in transition and began wondering about his next move. Inspired, he started writing songs that reflected these feelings. “I can’t remember what the first song I wrote might have been,” he says, “but it was either the ‘Jewel of the Midwest’ song or ‘Mouth of the Tiger’; both were about figuring out how to move forward.”

These songs, though, felt different than what McCaughan recorded previously as Sundowner and with The Lawrence Arms. When he released Four One Five Two, some critics crowed that it was merely a collection of what could be acoustic Lawrence Arms songs (or were, considering that “My Boatless Booze Cruise” and “1,000 Resolutions” are on Lawrence Arms records). Whether or not this is a complaint, McCaughan began to consider how close his solo material should be to what he’s written with his band. “There’s a thread that ties Sundowner and The Lawrence Arms together that can’t be cut,” McCaughan explains. “I’m very, very proud of being in The Lawrence Arms and of all the things we’ve done. The intent was never to somehow distance myself from them, but only to continue to make a path for myself, to challenge myself.”

McCaughan’s efforts to challenge himself, however, did distance Sundowner from both The Lawrence Arms, if only subtly; they also distance his second record from his first. One way in which McCaughan began to challenge himself was in how he perceived the writing process. “My process for We Chase the Waves involved this big roll of butcher paper,” he explains. “I’d tape the paper to the wall, get a few ideas on a pad, and then start writing lyrics on the wall with my guitar in hand; I’d go back and forth until I had something. I was going for a physical element to the writing and it went really well.”

He also started considering how Sundowner should sound. “I found myself thinking more about the acoustic form,” McCaughan admits. “I think it’s because I played solo a lot and realized that it’s different than playing in a band, it’s different than playing loud music. I was forced to reckon with certain things that I didn’t think about when I was playing a rock show. It helped me understand how I wanted to present the songs.

“That was a really good basis for me to start to think about things I didn’t think about on the first record,” he continues. “I didn’t think about those as acoustic songs.”

When McCaughan collected a comfortable amount of material, he contacted Hennessy, The Lawrence Arms’ drummer who had engineered Four One Five Two at Atlas Studios in Chicago. McCaughan was counting on Hennessy to help him turn his skeletal ideas into fully realized songs, as he had with the previous release, but considered another route for recording the follow-up.

“When I was talking to Neil about making this record,” he says, “I was like, ‘Well, maybe we shouldn’t go into a studio and block off two weeks. Maybe we need more time. Maybe if we recorded it at home, it would sound more natural.’ Since it’s an acoustic record, we wanted it to sound like two guys hanging out really playing these songs.”

The freedom to record at a comfortable pace became a blessing within a curse; when We Chase the Waves took eight months to complete, McCaughan found meaning in this freedom and flexibility, and began to perceive the process as both the means and the ends. “As we were doing it,” McCaughan explains, “I found that I cared less and less about getting it out. I was actually kind of sad when we finished it because there was no more work left to do.”

McCaughan and Hennessy fall short in one regard: We Chase the Waves doesn’t sound like two dudes strumming guitars on a front porch. Instead, he record is moody and atmospheric, far more than Four One Five Two. Thunder rumbles in the background behind “The Flicker”, the record’s first track. McCaughan strums slowly, letting his strings ring and fade before his tenor climbs slowly from the silence. As the song builds—as his hand strums with quicker, heavier strokes—the mood remains bleak and slumberous.

“What Beadie Said” closes the album. “It’s about a conversation that I had with my girlfriend about a scene from The Wire,” McCaughan explains. And, though the song describes the loneliness of his life and his hypothetical funeral, the tone is almost opposite to the one present in “The Flicker”; his chords are bright and step at a slow, but hopeful pace.

“If I had to pick one most important song,” McCaughan says, “It’d have to be the last one, ‘What Beadie Said’, because I think it’s the one I feel the closest to personally and the one I feel is the best one. It speaks to a lot of the things I feel like I was trying to convey on the record. The first song, ‘In the Flicker’, is really important because it’s the most airy and least dense. It’s the song that, while I was writing the record, felt like I was doing something different, like I was taking a risk. I think that’s what we’re trying to do as ‘artists;’ we’re trying to make ourselves take risks.”

And maybe that’s why he seems to itch with such happy apprehension. At this point in his career as a musician, McCaughan has released ten full-length records (by this writer’s count) and We Chase the Waves may be the biggest risk he’s taken; he’s stepping outside of the realm of punk-rock, plucking his strings instead of merely strumming them, and feeling that intestine-wrenching rush that comes with consciously doing something different.

Still, McCaughan isn’t sure if Sundowner has settled where he wants it to be yet. “I’d like to make another Sundowner record at some point,” he says, “and I feel like I’m trying to figure it out along the way each time—how to make it new for me and exciting for listeners. I’m trying to challenge myself and write things that are harder for me to write, to follow what my instincts are as a person who likes to write things.”

Self-improvement—almost pathetic in its simplicity as a philosophy—seems to be the risky reason why McCaughan is both nervous and excited about the release We Chase the Waves; it also seems to be his secret about how to keep this old game exciting.

McCaughan recorded these songs on a sunny afternoon in his mother's kitchen in Chicago, since he doesn't have a landline at home. When asked to what cover he would be playing, McCaughan was caught off guard and didn't know what to play, so he opted to perform a song by his other band The Lawrence Arms.

"The Flicker" appears on Sundowner's 2010 record titled We Chase the Waves. "The Slowest Drink At The Saddest Bar On The Snowiest Day In The Greatest City" is a Lawrence Arms song and originally appeared on the 2009 album Buttsweat and Tears.

Visit the Sundowner's MySpace for more music and McCaughan's website for more info.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume One for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2010. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.